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`ALAWID DYNASTY. A family of religious notables, the `Alawis gained political dominion and the status of a royal house in Morocco during the seventeenth century and have ruled there continuously since that time, playing a significant, formative role in its development as a modern nation-state. The dynasty is also known as the Filalis or Filalians because of its long association with the region of Tafilalt.

Like the Sa’dis who preceded them as rulers and statebuilders (1509-1659), the `Alawis are sharifs, descendants of the prophet Muhammad. In circumstances and stages that remain obscure, they migrated from the Arabian Peninsula to the Tafilalt in southeastern Morocco during the early thirteenth century. There they settled near Sijilmassa (present-day Rissani), the region’s capital and an important terminus of the trans-Saharan trade. As sharifs they soon prospered in this new setting, where veneration of the Prophet and the exaltation of his descendants were emerging as particularly salient forms of popular social and religious practice, giving those who claimed descent from him increasing access to economic and political power. Very little is known concerning the `Alawis’ activities in the Tafilalt before the seventeenth century, but clearly by then they had evolved into a political movement with dynastic ambitions. Between 1631 and 1664 they established themselves as sovereign rulers of this region and began to expand their control into adjacent territories.

Under the able leadership of sultans Mawlay (literally “my lord”, a title given to sharifs) al-Rashid (r. 16641672) and his half-brother Mawlay Isma`il (r. 16721727), the `Alawis extended their political dominion over all the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Saharan territories that together make up Morocco, appropriating their revenues and human resources to strengthen the new dynasty’s military forces, to reestablish permanent structures of government, and to finance the jihad against Christian forces still in possession of strategic points along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. By the beginning of the eighteenth century they had won significant victories in the last cause and had imposed a degree of internal control unmatched until the twentieth century.

After the death of Mawlay Isma’il the power and authority of the sultanate was seriously weakened by a prolonged succession struggle (1727-1757) among his numerous heirs and by widespread rebellion against continuation of the imperious, arbitrary, and economically burdensome regime he had sought to enforce throughout the country. Despite the upheavals of this interregnum, the `Alawis preserved their role as ruling dynasty and after 1757 gradually reasserted their political control under the astute guidance of Mawlay Muhammad ibn `Abd Allah (r. 1757-1790), who defused political discontent by implementing a more decentralized system of government and by relieving the tax burden on agricultural producers through increasing the makhzan’s (government) dependence on revenues from Morocco’s growing commerce with Europe.

Nonetheless, relations between state and society remained contentious, the makhzan’s financial resources limited, and its military forces weak and unreliable.These difficulties were exacerbated throughout the nineteenth century by the damaging effects of European military, political, and economic intervention.`Alawi sultans, especially Mawlay Muhammad ibn `Abd alRahman (r. 1859-1873) and Mawlay al-Hasan I (r. 1873-1894), responded to these conditions by initiating military, administrative, and fiscal reforms intended to provide the makhzan with European technology and expertise, modern armed forces, and a more efficient and centralized government. At considerable cost these reforms enhanced the scope and power of the state but could not provide it with means sufficient to repulse European invasion or to prevent the imposition of a Franco-Spanish protectorate in 1912.

The protectorate powers retained the `Alawi sultanate and elements of its government as legitimizing symbols and structures and as a buffer against popular resistance. `Alawi sultans reluctantly accepted this subservient role until the 1930s, when Mawlay Muhammad ibn Yusuf (r. 1927-1961) began to reassert royal authority and lent his support to the movement for national unification and independence that emerged under religious and secular leadership during this period. His defiance of protectorate authorities became a powerful symbol of the national will to resist foreign rule and played a crucial role in the sultanate’s political revival. His exile in 1953 by the French administration precipitated widespread popular unrest and gave decisive impetus to the culminating stage of Morocco’s struggle for political independence. At the same time, it consolidated the dynasty’s identification with that struggle and confirmed Muhammad ibn Yusuf’s leadership role in it. After his triumphant return to Morocco on 17 November 1955 he led its delegation in the final negotiations for independence, which was granted on 2 March 1956. He ruled the country as King Muhammad V until his death in 1961 and was succeeded by his son, the present King Hasan II.

The `Alawi sultans have drawn religious authority and prestige from a variety of sources to legitimate and promote their political objectives. As sharifs they were believed to be possessed of a special grace (barakah), a privileged access to divine favor that empowered them to be effective intermediaries in spiritual as well as material affairs. As such they were strategically placed in Morocco’s predominantly tribal society to accumulate the symbolic and material capital essential to their larger political and dynastic goals. Their functions and status converged in practice and public perception with those of the popular saint (murabit, sdlih, or sayyid), effectively fusing the power and prestige of their sacred lineage with the latter’s reputed ability to work miraculous deeds and broker divine assistance in day to day affairs. They also drew authority and legitimacy from asserting their role as `ulama’ interpreters of the shari `ah, scrupulous adherents to the Sunni interpretation of Islam, and ardent patrons of Islamic scholarship and education. Similarly, they claimed leadership of the faithful in the duty of jihad against Christian adversaries and achieved renown in this cause, although their credibility in this role diminished during the nineteenth century when military operations against vastly superior European armies and navies became impracticable and nonbelligerence toward Europe became a compelling state interest.

Combined, these overlapping roles provided enormous symbolic and practical power to the monarch as person and institution. By themselves, however, they were never sufficient in practice to sustain a broad and lasting acceptance of `Alawi political legitimacy or to secure their political dominion. This was realized only with the simultaneous deployment of military force and the apparatus of a temporal state, which alone could guarantee their continuing access to material resources, security against internal opposition, and a measure of success against European intervention.

Over the centuries the history of the `Alawi dynasty has become inextricably intertwined with the history of modern Morocco. Although opposition to the method and legitimacy of their political dominion persists, they continue to embody and unite the Arab, Islamic, and Moroccan traditions that are essential constituents in the modern nation’s identity and to provide an important link between contemporary society and these historical and religious traditions.


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Brown, Kenneth L. People ofSale: Tradition and Change in aMoroccanCity, 1830-1930.Cambridge,Mass., 1976. Rich source on religion, culture, and society, seen through a perceptive account of the life of one urban community.

Burke, Edmund, III. Prelude to Protectorate inMorocco: Precolonial Protest and Resistance, 1860-1912.Chicago, 1976. Important discussion of the internal and external factors that led to the imposition of European protectorates.

Eickelman, Dale F. Moroccan Islam: Tradition and Society in aPilgrimageCenter.Austin, 1976. Examines the role of an influential lineage of religious notables, the Sharqawa, in Moroccan culture, society, and politics.

El Mansour, Mohamed.Moroccoin the Reign of Mawley Sulayman. Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, 1990. Informative, in-depth study of the sultan and his time, based on extensive use of Moroccan archival and manuscript sources.

Entelis, John P. Culture and Counterculture in Moroccan Politics.Boulder, 1989. A political scientist explores the sources of national identity and political legitimacy in modernMorocco.

Geertz, Clifford. Islam Observed: Religious Development inMoroccoandIndonesia.New Haven, 1968. Ground-breaking effort that focuses substantially on the relationship between religion and temporal power inMorocco.

Gellner, Ernest. Saints of the Atlas.London, 1969. Seminal work on the function and status of Muslim holy men in the tribal society of the High Atlas Mountains inMorocco.

Julien, Charles-Andrd. History of North Africa:Tunisia,Algeria, andMoroccofrom the Arab Conquest to 783o. Translated by John Petrie. Edited by C. C. Stewart.London, 1970. Volume 2 of a standard historical survey by the late dean of French historians ofNorth Africa.

Laroui, Abdallah. The History of the Maghrib: An Interpretive Essay. Translated by Ralph Manheim.Princeton, 1977. New perspective on Moroccan history by one of that country’s most important historians.

Munson, Henry, Jr. Religion and Power inMorocco.New Haven, 1993. Thoughtful reinterpretation of this theme by an anthropologist well versed in Moroccan textual sources.

Waterbury, John. The Commander of the Faithful: The Moroccan Political Elite -A Study in Segmented Politics.London, 1970. Insightful application of segmentary theory toMorocco’s political system. Zartman,I.William.Morocco: Problems of a New Power.New York, 1964. Reliable introduction to the challenges facing monarchy and nation since independence.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/alawid-dynasty/

  • writerPosted On: October 7, 2012
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